Bills to repeal the death penalty in Maryland have failed to pass the General Assembly. In all likelihood, another effort will be made during this legislative session, which convenes on Wednesday.
Whether such a measure will get further this time around is uncertain. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a strong death penalty opponent, is expected to decide soon whether to make a serious push for repeal in Annapolis. Soon after taking office in 2007 he made the case against the death penalty, which the state reinstituted in 1978.
Some would argue that Maryland, which is among 33 capital punishment states, took adequate safeguards to prevent “misuse” of the death penalty when it tightened requirements for its application in 2009. Since then, at least one of three types of evidence is needed to apply the ultimate punishment: DNA or other biological data, a videotape that ties a suspect to the crime or a videotaped confession.
Never mind the fact that no one has been executed in the state since 2005, there are some compelling reasons to repeal the death penalty altogether.
n As a 2008 study in Maryland noted, the cost of a death sentence in Maryland is about three times higher, or $1.9 million more, than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case. Figure that price tag, like everything else, has gone up in the past four years. All told, the death penalty has cost Maryland at least $186 million, the study concluded. Legal, procedural and appeals costs mount in capital cases.
n One argument used by death penalty supporters is that it serves as a deterrent for criminals. But, as an April report by the National Research Council of the National Academies pointed out, studies claiming as much have proved fundamentally flawed. A council committee recommended that the studies “not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide.”
n Studies over the years have borne out that the combination of a black offender and a white victim greatly raises the chances for a death sentence. In 2008, one of the findings of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, a 23-member panel created by the legislature, was that racial disparities exist in the state’s capital sentencing system. That’s one reason the national NAACP testified last session for abolishment of the death penalty in Maryland.
n Regardless of the reliability of DNA testing, it is not foolproof. The Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of death-row inmates nationwide who subsequently have been exonerated over the years. As of Oct. 1, the number stands at 141, including one in Maryland — Kirk Bloodsworth. The thought of even one innocent person being executed should be enough to chill even the most ardent capital punishment booster.
n The argument probably most often used in support of the death penalty is that it brings a sense of justice or closure to the family of victims. The pain felt by these families cannot be minimized. But studies show that many families of crime victims suffer increased stress and delayed healing when death penalty cases drag on through the necessary appeals process. And, as the mother of a student murdered in 1998 noted in 2006 testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, there is no such thing as closure when someone dear to you is slain. Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore and Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore want language added to a repeal bill this year that would allocate funds saved in court costs to support the families of murder victims.
There are other reasons to oppose the death penalty, but the most sensible might be that as a society we haven’t really evolved unless we can keep from stooping to the lowest aberrant behavior.
As Benjamin R. Civiletti, who chaired the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which recommended repeal of the death penalty, put it four years ago: “There is no good and sufficient reason to have the death penalty and plenty of reasons against it.”
Legislators this session should take heed of the commission recommendation and repeal the death penalty. In the process, they would leave a lasting legacy they could always look back at with pride.